Picking through the charred remains of a Tesla crash last weekend, first responders found two bodies in passenger seats, but none at the wheel.
It’s possible they incorrectly used Tesla’s much-touted “Autopilot” feature.
If so, did they die from their own folly, or from overhyped marketing?
Electric Cars Are Not Carbon Neutral When They Burn
Today’s electric cars may bring environmental benefits, but also come with operating risks.
The batteries that power electric vehicles have a nasty habit of catching fire. Fires arise from design flaws, manufacturing defects, and wear and tear. Most spectacularly, car-battery fires arise from accidents, which are not just foreseeable but inevitable.
The weekend fire that consumed the Tesla (and its passengers) reportedly took firefighters four hours and 32,000 gallons of water to extinguish. That’s more water than a 20 foot x 40 foot swimming pool with an average depth of five feet.
Early findings suggest that at the moment of impact in last weekend’s Tesla crash, no one was behind the wheel. Human remains were, however, found in the passenger seat and back seat.
Investigators’ early hypothesis is that the passengers activated the Tesla’s Autopilot feature and then sat back to enjoy the ride. This meant bypassing built-in safeguards requiring a driver’s-seat occupant with his or her hand on the wheel.
If bypassing safeguards sounds too idiotic to be believed, bear in mind that in 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered one company to cease and desist selling a device designed to do just that.
Did bypassing happen here?
Tesla CEO Elon Musk claims that “Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled.” Musk seems to dismiss the possibility that the Tesla occupants hotwired the Autopilot. He thus appears to argue that either the crash managed to fling the driver into another seat (and attach the seatbelt?) or that the driver flew through the windshield and landed so far from the car that investigators failed to find the body.
One other possibility is that the battery fire burned up the driver so thoroughly that no trace of him (or her) could be found.
But would Musk really want to argue that he’s selling a crematorium-on-wheels?
How Much Fool-proofing Is Enough?
People will do foolish things. When should someone else pay for the damage that results?
In some jurisdictions, manufacturers are expected to anticipate and guard against reasonably foreseeable misuse of their products. Failing to do so opens the manufacturers to liability for damages.
Assigning one person liability for someone’s else foolishness does not result solely from modern plaintiffs’ lawyers and liberal judges run wild. For example, the principle of holding a landlord responsible for failing to fence in a swimming pool that would foreseeably attract neighboring children has its roots in 19th century English common law.
The Tesla is a marvel of human ingenuity. But in imagination, in pluck, and in daring, can such ingenuity hold a candle to human folly?
When Mislabeling Abets Misuse
If reasonably foreseeing misuse attracts liability, what about inviting it through mislabeling?
Tesla’ website states that: “Autopilot and full self-driving capability are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their [sic] hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.”
Tesla wants to have its cake and eat it, too. “Autopilot and full self-driving capability” sound cool. They make people want to buy the car. They also tempt people to use these features as the common meanings of their names imply, notwithstanding the “intended for use” qualification.
Incidentally, if Tesla actually “intend[s] for use with a fully attentive driver who has their [sic] hands on the wheel,” why do Teslas come with stereos, blue tooth, and cup holders?
Cue the lawsuits. Tesla might well end up having its cake — but only after giving lawyers a fat slice.
If the occupants of the car indeed hotwired its Autopilot, they died from their own foolishness. But, arguably, Tesla gave them encouragement by mislabeling features and mis-stating intended use.